April is the cruelest month (guest post)

The following is a guest post from Sam H., a senior at Harvard College studying Economics and Government.

As the all too often infamous week of April 19th drew to yet another unforgettable close this year, The Onion ran the following typically satirical headline: “Jesus, this Week.” And that was still prior to the night of carjacking, explosions in suburbia, and orders to “shelter in place” across Boston. An equally appropriate reaction, however, would have been “What a Month”—lest we ignore a plethora of other bursts of violence beyond our borders.

My purpose in this piece is not to bemoan our collective and tragic lack of awareness for horrors that occur worldwide on a daily basis. Rather, I will focus on an anecdotal observation that many cannot help but have right now, exploring the following question: Is there something about April?

Two years ago, CNN reported on precisely this question, although with a focus on contemporary America. After consulting with Georgia Tech conspiracy theory scholar Robert Blaskiewicz, CNN concluded that nothing about April is statistically aberrant. In other words, nothing about the frequency of violent acts during this month appears any different than that of any other month of the year. The appearance of an “April effect” is simply the product of the human mind’s penchant for recognizing “patterns” where none in fact exist and for conflating high profile events with high probability events. However, the scope of CNN’s analysis was limited to the United States, so it is unknown whether the results would differ given a more inclusive study. Such a project could be the subject of much more extensive scholarship, far more than is appropriate for this space. But in the space allotted here, let me provide a bit of history and a few short comments.

First, the history. The six-day period from April 15th to April 20th has seen numerous very public and very tragic instances of violence in America over the past twenty years: Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and now the Boston Marathon. At first blush, this lineup would seem to include most of the more horrific acts of mass violence in America. It is all too easy, though, to see this cluster as explainable by a single coincidence that constitutes a common thread that Blaskiewicz identifies: Waco’s occurrence on the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, a time when resistance against tyranny is celebrated.

But such an explanation leaves unanswered the question of whether there was anything special about April that led the American Revolution to break out in the first place. Similarly, the American Civil War started (and ended) in April. Likewise, Napoleon was overthrown and exiled to Elba in April 1814, and the Chinese civil war began in April 1927. The commemoration days for both the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide fall in or around April, reflective of noteworthy episodes from each event that happened in April: the Warsaw ghetto uprising in the case of the former and the Ottoman arrest of Armenian intellectuals and local leaders in the case of the latter. The precipitating event of the Rwandan genocide—the shoot down of a plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi? Also April.

Still not convinced? How about the Hainan island P-3 incident, the Falklands war, the start of the Bosnian war, the official overthrow of the Shah of Iran, or the start of the north-south Sudanese civil war? Plenty more began in other spring months—March or May. And let’s not forget the names attached to two notable sets of revolutions: Prague Spring and Arab Spring.

Admittedly, we might be able to go through this exercise for any month of the year, but before dismissing the April effect as a spurious correlation and moving on, let’s contemplate two simple theoretical explanations for these observations:

1)      Spring has sprung (more violence): In the northern hemisphere, where most of the earth’s landmass falls, April signals the arrival of spring. As the snow melts, armies awaken. Fighting season has begun. It would seem that the least developed countries seem particularly prone to this phenomenon, with Afghanistan being a recent, notable example, along with elsewhere in the Middle East. The underlying mechanism at work here could be that climactic obstacles to fighting in the wintertime have led to pent-up “demand” for conflict, with the lull in the fighting only begetting further intensification once it resumes. We can even find support for the (at least) historical universality of this phenomenon in the Old Testament: 2 Samuel 11:1 reads “In the Spring, at the time when Kings go off to war…”

2)      Hungry for war: Much like a bear waking up from hibernation, populations in the spring are running low on food stores, particularly in economies that rely on subsistence agriculture or lack food storage and preservation capabilities. A notable example in this regard is the April 1775 bread shortage in France, an event that led to the Flour War riots and spawned the backstory behind the famous “let them eat cake” statement (that is wrongly attributed to Marie Antoinette). Furthermore, a particularly strategic and brutal military planner may see an adversary’s food shortage crisis as a window of opportunity to make gains—triggering a military offensive. The propensity of essential resource shortages to lead to conflict has been the topic of extensive study. While the jury is still out on this one, a causal theory in this area would nonetheless seem to hold at least some water.

Even if an April effect proves nonexistent in statistical terms, perhaps it can lead scholars and citizens alike to more closely examine the seasonal patterns that tend to breed or exacerbate armed conflicts. The above two, in particular, hold interest for those interested in the relationship between climactic variables and conflict incidence, a topic that will grow only more important in the coming years.

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